In transition? 6 lessons from successful career changes.

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Change happens fast. Transitions take time. That’s because with each new career change, if you’re thoughtful about it, you take a step closer to becoming your true self. This can’t be rushed.

What will it take for the next five years to be your best ever? By linking what you do to who you are, your career becomes your vocation.

Over the years, I have witnessed hundreds of executives make job changes, mostly involving a bigger title, more money, or greater responsibilities. Few of these executives quit to move into entirely new careers. Fewer still describe their new career as their vocation. Maybe it’s because most executives are too damn busy to reflect on what makes them truly effective or happy; or maybe the easy pay raises have seduced them into careers defined by money or power. Or tunnel vision. It doesn’t have to be that way.

What will it take for the next five years to be your best ever?

Changing your career is not the same thing as changing jobs. A truly successful career transition requires a redefinition, or reinvention, of who you are. In my experience, executives who have succeeded in single or multiple career transitions — and I don’t mean job changes — and who love what they do, have five critical qualities in common:

  1. Self-Awareness. The starting point is understanding what drives us. 75 members of Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Advisory Council, mostly made up of senior executives, were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop. Their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness. Self awareness gives executives the power to spot the disconnects between their chosen career path, their income potential, and the joy they get out of life. Self-awareness gives people the power to recognize when “something’s missing” in their career. By reflecting on what’s important and experimenting with different choices, they learn from their experiences. In our coaching, we routinely use self-assessments to flesh out motivations. We help executives find meaning from their career successes and failures, their values and passions.
  2. Autonomy. Successful career-changers self-author their careers and lives. They, not their employers, take responsibility for their own development and the fulfillment they get out of their work. Thirty years in the making, a self-determined career is now a reality, thanks to LinkedIn and the slow death of the social contract. Like it or not, we are all contractors now. Successful career-changers know that theirs is the start-up that matters most. Their livelihood is determined by how effectively they discover, nurture, and sell their inspired vision for the future.
  3. Pursuing Mastery. Good things happen when we are at our best. This takes conscious effort. When executives strive to attain higher levels of mastery over their mindsets, ideas, and behaviors, opportunities come their way. People are eager to work with us because of who we are, not just because of what we know. And we, in turn, want to work with people we can learn from and who challenge us to be better. Mastery is a journey that takes time, experimentation, effort, and discovery. My coaching clients describe this journey as the hardest thing they have ever done — and the most rewarding. With each new level of mastery, higher mountains stand before them.
  4. Purpose. All of us are drawn to an activity that is meaningful for us. If we are lucky, our purpose or ‘calling’ grabs us, shakes us, and doesn’t let us go. Succumbing to our purpose can and should dedicate us to something bigger than ourselves. Our energy, engagement, tenacity, and confidence stems from our purpose. Life takes on a sense of urgency. But relatively few of us are committed to a purpose, according to research published in HBR (see my prior post).
  5. Identity. In your transition, who is the new you? By stepping into the future of your own design, you become the person or leader you aspire to be. Your identity, the way you show up in the world, shifts, and there is no turning back. Have you felt this way? There are many examples of accomplished people who have consciously reinvented themselves, driven by a clarifying and renewable sense of purpose: Winston Churchill, Leopold Stokowski, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Gates, to name a few. Without exception, every successful career shift coincides with a shift, or reinvention, of identity.
  6. Experimentation. Successful career-changers have a learning mindset. Reflection can take you only so far. It is often a good strategy to experiment or act your way into a new way of thinking or being. This involves testing your career ideas on others, attaining certifications or new skills, building new social networks, and trying out new jobs or volunteer roles where your passions can be tested.

How do you score on the above list?

Back to the drawing boardThe most successful people find creative ways to express their inner selves through work. If something’s missing, they change their work. They stretch themselves, accept their strengths and weaknesses without judgment, and are relentless in pursuing the thing they love to do.

If you are in the second half of your career, you know that most careers don’t always follow linear upward paths to success. Careers are journeys filled with ups and downs, pain and joy. Changing your career deliberately and consciously is not the same thing as changing your job. A successful career change takes reflection, hard work, a personal support system, and the courage to experiment. I’d like to hear about your experience.

Remarkable careers don’t happen by accident. Careers, like the leaders who create them, are made, not born.

For thirty years, Michael Bekins has lived and worked in Asia, Europe, and the US in global and regional roles, making almost a dozen cross-border moves. His conversations with thousands of executives have shaped his perspectives on life and work. He is Managing Partner of CapitaPartners, an executive coaching and talent consulting firm specializing in Global Mindset and Purpose-driven Careers. He co-leads Executive SpringBoard, the career redesign workshop for executives. Connect on LinkedIn. Friend on Facebook. Follow Michael on @michaelbekins.

Interested in more information? Visit our Executive Springboard website and consider our reading list.

Ten reasons why experience in Asia is good for your career

Asia provides leaders with an ideal testing ground for mastering new ways of thinking and operating. Just ask the current CEOs of Pepsi and P&G, as well as the former CEO of IBM. All developed their leadership skills in Asia. Many executives head to Asia in the hope that the experience they get working in rapidly growing and changing markets will give them a competitive advantage. That’s not a bad plan: Asia is a region that rewards fast learners. Here are 10 takeaways you can expect from experience in Asia:

  1. Navigating both the local and the global. Getting this balance right requires that top executives in Asia win the trust of colleagues up, down, and across the organization. This gets to the heart of global mindset—systemic thinking and global savvy. If you’re leading a team in Asia, a big part of your job is navigating the global system to make it easier for local executives to do business. The Asia team will appreciate your ability to shape the global strategies and products that impact their local operations.
  2. Getting used to speed. Executives quickly learn to get things done on the fly, often without a playbook. This takes energy, resilience, and tenacity.
  3. Listening for understanding. To build a business for the long-term, leaders first need to understand the local market and culture. This is especially important if you’re an expatriate. Experienced leaders in Asia say they’ve learned to tone down their temptation to judge or comment until they fully understand what is being said. Listen first.
  4. Leading with humility. While all of us have it to some degree, Asia helps us appreciate the importance of humility in our everyday actions. Leaders in Asia use their humility to connect with others, find creative solutions, and adapt their styles to meet the needs of other people and situations.
  5. Doing what you say you’re going to do. In high-achievement Asia where personal relationships drive business, executives learn quickly to keep their word.
  6. Inspiring people. Demonstrating charisma is just as important in Asia as it is in the West—and challenging, given the vast geographies, time-zones, and cultures. The soft qualities of charisma are especially important—connecting with others emotionally, demonstrating integrity, and communicating the why of strategy.
  7. Demonstrating cultural awareness. Executives learn how their work relationships are impacted by their own cultural preferences and the cultural preferences of others.
  8. Appreciating uncertainty. Expect the unexpected. Many new executives find global roles in Asia more complex and ambiguous than what they are used to in the West. Let new situations arouse your curiosity.
  9. Building relationships. Because Asians are in it for the long-term, relationships built over time can speed things up, remove uncertainty, and ensure that the needs of many stakeholders are considered.
  10. Building to last. Over the years I’ve seen many expatriate executives win repatriation back to headquarters by delivering short-term results. They’re building castles in the sand. There’s one big problem: their ‘successes’ often fail to survive the first Asian downturn. For sustained success, global executives need to lay the foundation for local leaders to grow and thrive over the long-term.

How Bosses Learn: Three Steps to Learning Through Career Inflection Points

Unless we are totally lacking in self-awareness, most of us would admit to failing in a new role at least once. What separates effective leaders, the people who keep getting promoted, from the managers who seem to get sidelined?

In “The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style,” (Harvard Business Review, February 2006, CapitaPartner’s strategic partner Ken Brousseau of Decision Dynamics proves the adage, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Through data collected by assessing thousands of executives, Ken shows that somewhere in our early careers, usually as we are beginning to manage people, our jobs become more complex and the solutions and behaviors that worked until that point do not work anymore.

In fact, leaders tell us that they typically confront this “inflection point” when they move from being a supervisor to a manager, or from an individual contributor to a team leader. Relying on old habits that were good enough to “get the job done” in their early career —like doing instead of leading, or telling instead of listening—most executives hit a wall. To move past this point quickly, new learning needs to happen and new behaviors, specifically essential, “soft” leadership qualities, are necessary.

Deepak got promoted by being smart and getting things done. He became a General Manager early in his career and quickly flamed out. The warning signs were there but he ignored them. He describes this failure as a “crucible experience,” saying, “I didn’t listen to my team. I was the smartest person in the room. Then my boss read me the riot act.”

While Deepak learned his lesson, too many others do not, and continue to operate as they always have, blaming everyone but themself for their derailment. This is most tragic in the case of otherwise high potential executives with the smarts and talent to excel, but who fail to win the support of colleagues, even other high potentials.

So, what can you do when being smart simply isn’t enough? Deepak embraced and applied three steps recommended to anyone seeking a positive change and transformation in any area of their lives. They are:

  1. Self-awareness: Deepak faced the behaviors that threatened to derail him head on. He began to ask for feedback and sought help clarifying specific areas for development.
  2. Commitment to change: Fueled by a compelling picture of what success would look and feel like compared to his current experience, which was causing frustration, Deepak took full responsibility and was willing to do whatever it took to change himself and his results.
  3. Action and reflection:Deepak recognized that thinking about doing something or promising to do something aren’t the same as doing  He consciously selected and consistently practiced new behaviors, reflecting on what was working and course correcting until the most effective new behaviors became part of his daily life.

Discovering his authentic, most positive and powerful style took time and courage. Luckily, he was someone driven by learning and continuous self-improvement with the motivation to move out of his comfort zone. If you find yourself struggling to move past a similar inflection point in your career, dedicated coaching can significantly accelerate your learning process and empower you to make a positive impact with greater ease and enjoyment.

Thriving as head of Asia: a case study

It’s hard to survive, much less thrive, in a Western multinational’s top job in Asia. These roles—Head of Asia, President-China, or something similar—are high risk leadership opportunities. There are lots of reasons: failure to grow fast enough, failure to connect with local teams, inability to adapt to the ambiguity of emerging markets, failure to build the right products for local customers.

But because of the attention Asia gets from Boards and shareholders, none of those beats the biggest derailer of all: failure to drive an Asia agenda and enlist crucial support from key stakeholders. This takes a global mindset and great communication.

Figuring out how to influence the agenda at headquarters isn’t easy for anybody—and it wasn’t easy for KC, the newly promoted Chinese Head of Asia for a US multinational.

KC’s struggle was not out of lack of desire, smarts, education, tenacity, or ability to execute. He was promoted into a job for which no training exists. And as the business in Asia continued to grow in complexity and size, all eyes were on him. Like many Asians newly promoted into the top job in Asia, KC had never even sat down with the CEO.

KC put it this way: “I’m an entrepreneur. I love running a business. But I suddenly found myself head of a matrix and there was no accountability. The headquarters wanted me to run the P&L of a region and I lacked control of anything.” Here’s what KC’s bosses in the US said: “KC grew up in the sales force and was comfortable leading the sales team and driving the local P&L. But he was then promoted into a regional leadership role where success in executing across the global matrix is more important. KC didn’t engage the matrix. He didn’t speak up on conference calls. He didn’t take the time to influence peers.”

Both the headquarters leaders and KC agreed that the skills that got him to where he is today were not the same skills that will carry him forward. What happened next? Three big events, all involving better engagement with his senior colleagues:

1. KC got an executive coach.

Rather than put KC through a battery of training programs, the head of HR asked KC a simple and smart question: What’s the one skill you know you need to master in order to succeed? His reply: “managing the matrix and influencing my peers at a global level.”

This was a bold step outside his comfort zone. KC had never liked working in a matrix. A natural entrepreneur, he was comfortable calling the shots and making fast decisions. With the help of a coach, he learned that he needed to paint a picture of what the business needs to look like in a year or two and communicate this story to everyone, even the CEO. Because of the stakes, he knew he needed to get this story right, achieve buy-in, find and fix its weaknesses, and ensure accountability on the part of everyone, even those who don’t report to him.

KC found his point of view. He listened for resistance and asked for support. Asia is a kaleidoscope of changing patterns and complexities; no one person can discern the best way forward alone. Leaders engage with others to find a better way, to validate their point of view, to hear the reality checks. Rather than complain about the matrix, he used it. KC put into place specific practices that forced regular communication. He scheduled regular check-ins, probed for the points of views of others during meetings, and walked down the hall to ask his peer in manufacturing what might be missing from the picture. Even now he is experimenting with new practices, while summoning the entrepreneurial instincts that he knows works for him.

Then during one of his regular conversations with the CEO, KC had another idea:

2. KC invited the top five operating executives in the company to each spend a week with him visiting customers. He spaced these meetings a few weeks apart.

Over the course of the next few months, KC developed deeper relationships with the top executives. The corporate culture became less a mystery. These operating executives took KC’s and the customer’s messages back to headquarters. These insights led to better strategies around products, faster decision-making, and better customer support.

The third big thing came from KC’s counterpart in Europe who, like KC, was at heart an entrepreneur.

3. The company hired the best Business and Financial Planning executive they could find to join KC in Shanghai.

KC knew he needed to become a better planner. But now he had the support of someone who was an expert. The planner became a business partner and mentor. Together they ran scenarios and tested growth plans. KC became better at operations. Other leaders began to trust KC’s point of view.

It would be a mistake to assume that KC needed to be someone he was not in order to succeed in his new role. That was KC’s fear. Yes, he built new skills related to business practices, the matrix, and better communication. At the same time, he continued to do what he was good at. Through coaching, he figured out how to use his strengths while learning new skills. And notice that the entire executive team rallied to support K.C.’s development.

The CEO took a chance on KC. And KC, for his part, stepped up. He decided he was accountable for his own success. It’s taken a year for him to tackle these leadership development issues. It’s probably too soon to say he’s thriving. But he’s increased his chances for success.

Filling the talent pipeline, even as it is under construction

Over the last 30 years, I’ve worked in nine different countries, most of them in Asia. And in that time, I’ve learned a great deal about what kind of leaders thrive when the going gets messy.

I still remember when the enormity of the talent challenge facing Asian businesses in particular hit home for me. It was 2005 and I was in Shanghai leading a workshop for human resources leaders at 10 of the largest multinationals operating in China. Recruitment, employee value proposition, compensation, retention, development—these were only a few of the jigsaw puzzle pieces of their talent issue. The big picture was this: they needed to build a sustainable pipeline of leaders—and all of them admitted falling short.

Building a sustainable pipeline doesn’t just entail recruiting, training, and giving raises so your executives don’t jump ship. Rather, it touches on building a strong culture of talent across the entire company which requires inspired leadership from the top.

And it starts with hiring and promoting the right talent. The best way to fill this executive pipeline, even as it is under construction, is to find good people who get up to speed fast, listen to them, and give them running room. A company can accelerate leadership development if it has first selected people who embrace learning and change. Then, with the right support, including mentoring and coaching, organizations turn these individuals into the  innovative, inspiring and impactful leaders they need.

Our talent pipelines will always be a work in progress, just as we, as leaders, are always “under construction.” By focusing on the important things, which includes having the right people on the team, organizations will move faster to build a sustainable pipeline and win in the marketplace with the best talent.

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